Montana Not Acting to Remedy Toxic Coal Ash Problem at Colstrip

Decades of inaction have led to contaminated groundwater supplies for nearby communities


Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 745-5213


Derf Johnson, MEIC, (406) 443-2520

Nearly a decade after sludge ponds holding toxic coal ash waste from the Colstrip power plant were first discovered leaking, and more than four years after nearby ranchers and residents won a $25 million legal settlement over the contamination, groups say the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is doing little to stop water pollution from poisoning nearby communities and ranchers.

The enormous sludge ponds at Colstrip were built in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, and contamination from the leaking ponds, which cover more than 500 acres, is well-documented. (MT DEQ)

In an appeal filed by Earthjustice Tuesday with Montana’s Board of Environmental Review on behalf of the Montana Environmental Information Center, Sierra Club, and National Wildlife Federation, the groups claim that the state is doing little to nothing to address decades of groundwater pollution from Colstrip’s waste tailings ponds.

“Adjacent landowners are sick and tired of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality acting as an agent for the industry it is supposed to be regulating,” said Clint McRae, a Colstrip area rancher. “The impacted adjacent landowners to the leaking ash ponds are stakeholders equal to that of PPL, and they deserve a place at the negotiating table, rather than being shut out of the AOC negotiations that have been taking place for several years.”

The enormous sludge ponds at Colstrip were built in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, and contamination from the leaking ponds, which cover more than 500 acres, is well-documented. The ponds have been leaking boron and other dangerous chemicals, such as selenium, magnesium, and sulfates into surrounding ground and surface water for decades. In fact, boron has been measured at levels 13 times established safety limits in plumes of contamination radiating from the ponds; overexposure to boron can damage the intestines, liver, kidneys, testes and the brain.

Despite the ongoing contamination, DEQ officials have not required Colstrip’s owners to take concrete steps to prevent further pollution from the leaking ponds or clean up already poisoned groundwater. Instead, after three decades of problems, DEQ officials signed a final agreement with Pennsylvania-based PPL and the plant’s other owners that would simply require years of further study and negotiation, rather than immediate action.

According to the appeal, DEQ already has years worth of reports documenting the contamination that justify requiring immediate clean-up. DEQ’s agreement with Colstrip owners will allow toxic seepage to continue poisoning groundwater and soil.

“Montanans have a right to healthy water and they entrust the state and DEQ to protect those rights, just as we entrust a fire or police department to protect our homes and families,” said Derf Johnson with the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“This agreement with polluters doesn’t do anything to fix the problem,” Johnson said. “It would be like a consent for firefighters or police to stand around and watch buildings burn or homes be broken into. And as long as no one notices, there’s no reason to expect the DEQ or PPL to live up to their basic responsibilities.”

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